“Dry skin, maybe psoriasis, it’s nothing”, that’s what 3 different dermatologists told me when I asked about a small patch of skin behind my left ear. It came and went over at least 10 years and sometimes itched and felt dry. Sometimes I could barely feel it. I obviously couldn’t see it and they were the experts, so I assumed it was just my sensitive skin acting up. Maybe I didn’t wash behind my ears enough?
The itchy, dry patch behind my ear was basal cell cancer. Ironically, I was diagnosed 2 weeks after I started working at Coolibar. As VP of Brand Marketing and Creative Services at the time, I was immersing myself in the mission, sun-facts, warrior stories and education about prevention and our unique sun-protective clothing and accessories. It was kind of like Googling “skin cancer” except the knowledge I had gained in my first few weeks at Coolibar was completely factual. I had a heightened awareness of the potential consequences of my diagnosis. Although basal cell cancer is slow growing, I’d had it for over a decade. The voice inside my head immediately began cussing every derm who has ever looked at it and not taken the step to biopsy, even when I was advocating for myself. I was really angry! But that quickly turned into thankfulness for my primary care doctor who had referred me to Dr. Mary Meighan, who listened carefully, asked thoughtful questions and took her time during my annual skin check. I wasn’t even going to say anything about that itchy patch, but I did. Thank goodness.
I have practiced sun-safety for the majority of my life. During my teen years, I realized that even if I was tan, no one noticed because my skin is naturally very pale. So, while everyone else was tanning, I decided to be a rebel and achieve the palest skin possible. That said, I remember getting burned. In fact, there is a family story about me falling asleep curled up in a fishing boat and getting sunburned across the exposed strip of skin between my top and pants around age 3. I personally remember getting a brutal burn on my back as a teen, after spending the day at a surfing lesson with only SPF 30 lotion to protect me. My father got diagnosed with melanoma in his late 70’s. I knew it was in my cards. But, as they say, nothing prepares you for that diagnosis.
The suspense was killing me. How bad was it? I felt humbled by my vanity. I didn’t want a big scar. But the bigger fear was that I didn’t want cancer or any limitation from being a mother to my 10-year old daughter. Dr. Meighan referred me to her colleague at Zell Clinic, Dr. Karl Vance for Mohs surgery. I arrived for surgery and told him that I worked at Coolibar and that I was going to write a blog about my experience to help educate and support others. He was immediately all in and couldn’t have been more accommodating, narrating his every move. He even let me go behind the scenes where he was literally looking thru a microscope at the skin graft he’d just taken from behind my ear. He was making sure he got all the cancer in his first cut and wanted to see a minimum 2mm edge of clean cells all the way around the cut and he said, with some well-earned pride, that it was important for him to retain his stellar record. 99% of his Mohs surgeries got the cancer with the first cut. His record remained intact and so did my ear.
The cancer hadn’t gone very deep and only a little over an inch around. It was tiny compared to the skin cancer warrior’s I’d met on the Coolibar blog. I didn’t need to experience skin cancer to want to work at a mission-driven company like Coolibar. I already knew that tan skin is damaged skin and sun protection promotes anti-aging. My friends who worshipped the sun in their younger years now look their age and I, the eccentric pale girl, often pass for younger. But here I am, a cautionary tale, waiting for the next diagnosis. Hoping it’s not the big M. Take care of your skin! Get skin checks by a qualified dermatologist. Check your loved ones. Self-advocate with your doctors. Spread the word. That’s what I’m doing at Coolibar.